Back in the early 1970s Lyman Wood, the direct-marketing genius behind the success of the Troy-built tiller and the rise of the Gardenway Company, pondered over research which indicated that many more Americans would garden if only they had the opportunity. They were the apartment dwellers, inner-city residents, and other landless folk who had no plot to till or dig over. Community gardens styled after the Victory Gardens of World War II were a logical solution. So Mr. Wood conceived and founded a nonprofit organization that would be a clearinghouse for information on community gardening. He called it Gardens for All, and his Gardenway Company provided most of the financing.
Today the organization has grown and evolved into The National Gardening Association -- a 250,000-member organization serving all gardeners in the United States and Canada, whether they practice their hobby in a community garden, in the backyard, on a windowsill, or even in a prison yard.
Now the NGA, as it is known for short, is firmly established, beholden to no one outside of its own members, and it is the stronger for having weathered a financial crisis that might have destroyed a less dedicated staff.
That crisis surfaced a few years ago when Mr. Wood lost control of the company he had built up over the years in what is termed here in Burlington as Gardenway's ``palace coup.'' At the same time Gardens for All (GFA) was put on notice by the company's new owners that it would soon lose the bulk of its annual funding.
Convinced that their organization offered a valuable and much-needed service to the general public, GFA's staff members took drastic salary cuts, some of them as deep as 50 percent. A renewed effort was undertaken to gain individual members. (A year earlier the decision had been made to become a membership organization.)
The principal drawing card was a gardening newspaper (now a magazine) that has become increasingly professional without losing the common touch -- a down-to-earth, idea-sharing approach that appealed strongly to its readers from the start.
A membership of 150,000 was the break-even point. That figure was reached in l983. Today it is pushing a quarter million, largely because of the publication. In 1984 Gardens for All, which for several years had described itself as the national association for gardeners, was officially renamed the National Gardening Association.
So finally the NGA is firmly established and independent and has a clear view of its goal: to foster, promote, and make ``the joy'' of gardening available to everyone -- including the landless, the imprisoned, the disabled, even those who feel they don't have the time.
To accomplish this the NGA serves its members in a variety of ways:
It publishes a monthly magazine that members consistently praise as the best in the country for the new ideas and inspiration in every issue.
``I've been a gardener for 45 years, yet I read a couple of things that were new to me in my first copy'' is typical of the written comments that come into the office on an almost daily basis. Although primarily a food gardening publication, an increasing emphasis on ornamental gardening is turning it into an all-around gardening publication.
It provides a gardening answering service that responds to some 50,000 telephoned or written questions a year.
It provides a seed-search service for members looking for hard-to-find varieties.
NGA keeps a current file of over 220 seed catalogs from around the world. If the search through every catalog fails to turn up a commercial source for the needed variety, the request is published in the magazine in the hope that fellow gardeners will be able to take over where the commercial suppliers have left off. Requests coming into the seed-search service exceed 30,000 a year and have gone as high as 50,000.
It publishes how-to manuals on community gardening, school gardening, gardening for the handicapped, and prison gardening, along with books and pamphlets on the art of gardening itself.
It produces the annual Gallup Poll survey on gardening in America. While this serves (for a fee) primarily the gardening industry, its indirect benefits to gardeners can be considerable.
Bruce Butterfield, NGA coordinator for the survey, explains that if the survey shows that gardeners want a particular service or product, a company is likely to respond to that need. Certainly it would do so far more quickly than if it had to rely solely on the eyes and ears within its own organization.
To the degree that industry as a whole makes wiser business decisions because of the information available in the survey, gardeners everywhere are the beneficiaries. The survey is invaluable, too, in informing NGA on how best to serve its members.
It wrote the National Garden Act that created an extension service program for urban gardens. In effect it brought the United States Department of Agriculture into the inner city.
It gives out National Garden Grant Awards valued at $500 in the form of tools, seeds, and fertilizers to community and youth gardens that qualify from around the country. What started out a few years ago as 75 awards has doubled to 150.
NGA's latest and most ambitious move involves a pilot project in the city of Cleveland. Its aim is to bring together the many talented, diverse, often overlapping horticultural organizations, along with the city administration, so that together they can turn the city's many vacant plots and abandoned properties into community gardens that will benefit everyone. If successful it could become a model for cities and towns across the country.
Charles Scott, who left the Audubon Society to become the president of NGA a year ago, points out that a nonprofit organization ``has to show that it has good public support or it is considered a foundation. We now have that broad support. You might say we are owned by the general gardening public.''
For more information about the National Gardening Association, write to 180 Flynn Avenue, Burlington, Vt. 05401.